How terrible to be the solitary vampire; cursed to walk the earth alone, sleepless nights interrupted by an insatiable blood lust, no one to go shopping with. It just doesn’t seem like the most sociable of lifestyle choices. This would be the case for most of horror’s filmdom until Thirst (1979), a quirky Australian blend of political satire and nightmarish imagery that presents a society of bloodsuckers intent on branding long before it entered the consciousness.
Released by New Line Cinema in late September, Thirst traipsed its way through the market place of grindhouse and drive-ins before popping up on VHS, where a young horror fiend (me) eagerly lapped up everything coming out by the nascent home video realm. What did the ten year old think? Well, not much at the time; he found it well made but slow. The man-child before you has the same thoughts, except time has brought me patience, and my slightly better developed mind can now appreciate the deliberate tactics of director Rod Hardy (The X-Files), as Thirst is a beautifully crafted and unique vampire take.
Cosmetics magnate Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri – High Rolling in a Hot Corvette) is in desperate need of a vacation; overworked, she leaves behind her boyfriend Derek (Rod Mullinar – Dead Calm) and plans on a two week getaway at a resort. Unfortunately for her, she’s abducted en route by a mysterious collective known as The Brotherhood, who whisks her away to their resort: a dairy farm, except the dairy is filled with “blood cows”, otherwise known as humans. Yes, The Brotherhood are vampires, and the interest in Kate isn’t accidental – she’s the heiress to Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a woman who knew a thing or two about bloodletting.
By initiating Kate into their world, they hope to bring a merger between two bloodlines to increase their number and social standing (the name of the other is lost on me; never mind, it’s insignificant in the grand scheme). Kate, however, doesn’t seem to share the same proclivities as The Brotherhood, and continually escapes even as they try to brainwash her to their ways. Will Kate succumb to her inherent bloodlust, or will she stick to drinking sherry?
Thirst is most certainly a different take on vampires, at least for its time; possessing no supernatural abilities, these folk use steel teeth to get the job done, and have no aversion to religious iconography. (Their eyes do glow red when the mood hits though, so I’m not sure if they’re completely on the up and up.) The biggest sea change would be the apparent equity between the vampires; no longer is it master and slave/servant/wife/crimson trough, but rather equal footing between each. This naturally leads to sides being taken in the battle for the will of Kate; on one, the aggressive Mrs. Barker (Shirley Cameron – Gutter Girls), Mr. Hodge (Max Phipps – The Road Warrior), and Dr. Gauss (Henry Silva – Alligator), while the other side has the benevolent Dr. Fraser (David Hemmings – Deep Red), intent on easing Kate through the process, if at all.
So there is no overlording in Thirst, but instead a democracy rotting from the inside; one can see a community with growing pains, and why Dracula was keen to go it alone – it’s easier to get your fix when you have no one to answer to besides yourself. But The Brotherhood seems to think their aristocratic paradise is immune to any outside pushback, even going so far as to have tours of their “dairy”, with tourists happily snapping pictures of commoners hooked up to plasma pumps. Yes, Thirst does low-key aim for satire, but frankly doesn’t go far enough and is somewhat ill-defined; it’s supposed to be the snobs versus the slobs, but Kate herself is one of the well-to-do, so that opportunity is somewhat missed.
No matter, the film has plenty to recommend it: the sharp, wide-eyed cinematography of Vincent Monton (Road Games), the futuristic (and Kubrick-ian) whites of Jon Dowding (Mad Max)’s production design (especially striking against the overwhelming reds), director Hardy’s strong rapport with the cast, screenwriter John Pinkney (Adventures of the Seaspray)’s novel take on the lore, and composer Brian May (Dr. Giggles)’s amusing homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen score, complete with oompa-loomping Satanic choirs.
Hemmings and Silva were brought in for international B appeal, so naturally the eyes are attuned to them first. And they’re good; Hemmings in particular gives a muted performance that seems aloof yet is very intentional (and important to the story). Contouri is fine as the distressed lead, but the VIP is definitely Cameron as Mrs. Barker, whose distrust and paranoia pull the film through the slow spots, as does the solid work from everyone down on the farm. A solid supporting cast buoys a film as languid as this one.
Thirst is an interesting take on the evolution of the vampire film; it eschews the old mythology for a nouveau sang with a splash of tongue in cheek. As for the idea of unionizing, I prefer Dracula’s stance about standing alone in the shadows. There’s much less paperwork.
Thirst is available in a Blu-Ray + DVD Combo Pack from Severin FilmsNext: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (1959)